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The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Huntington, H. P., A. Begossi, S. Fox Gearheard, B. Kersey, P. A. Loring, T. Mustonen, P. K. Paudel, R. A. M. Silvano, and R. Vave. 2017. How small communities respond to environmental change: patterns from tropical to polar ecosystems. Ecology and Society 22(3):9.

How small communities respond to environmental change: patterns from tropical to polar ecosystems

1Huntington Consulting, 2Capesca/Nepa/Unicamp, Rua Albert Einsteins/n, Campinas, SP, 3Fisheries and Food Institute, 4Ecomar/Unisanta/Santos, SP, 5Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado Boulder, 6Iowa State University, 7School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan, 8University of Eastern Finland, 9Snowchange Cooperative, 10Center for Conservation Biology, Kathmandu Institute of Applied Sciences, Kathmandu, Nepal, 11Department of Ecology, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), 12Institute of Applied Science, University of the South Pacific, Fiji, 13Marine Biology Graduate Program, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa


Local communities throughout the world are experiencing extensive social, cultural, economic, environmental, and climatic changes. Rather than passively accepting the effects of such changes, many communities are responding in various ways to take advantage of opportunities and to minimize negative impacts. We review examples from 13 cases around the world to identify patterns in how communities have been able to respond to change. Communities are able to respond by making changes in the time and location of activities, by using different species, by developing or using new technologies, and by organizing themselves internally or in networks. The possible responses a community can make on its own constitute the autonomous response space. When communities work with others to respond, they are in the collaborative response space. These findings suggest that assessments concerning climate and other forms of change should include local responses as a foundation for policy recommendations, recognizing that both autonomous and collaborative responses can contribute to adaptation. Policies designed to achieve adaptation or sustainability should consider ways to expand the autonomous response space, thus freeing local initiative, while also making the collaborative response space more cooperative, thus providing support to communities rather than imposing limitations.
Key words: climate change; environmental change; management; policy; response space; social-ecological systems


Local communities throughout the world are experiencing social, cultural, economic, environmental, and climatic changes at rates and to an extent greater than previously experienced (ACIA 2005, AMSA 2009, McClanahan and Cinner 2011, Nakashima et al. 2012, CAFF 2013, IPCC 2014). Much attention has been given to documenting those changes, their impacts, and the presumed vulnerability, resilience, and adaptability of the communities in question (e.g., Adger et al. 2003, AHDR 2004, 2014, Ford and Smit 2004, Ford et al. 2014, 2015, Shackleton et al. 2015, Garfin and Parris 2016). Further studies have considered the day-to-day context in which these changes are experienced, including the actions that individuals and communities are already taking in response to changes (e.g., Hovelsrud and Smit 2010, Ifejika Speranza et al. 2010, Halder et al. 2012, Loring et al. 2016). These actions largely fall in the category of experience-based responses identified by Amaru and Chhetri (2013). Adaptation entails a continuous process of learning about best use of available resources and capacity (Fazey et al. 2007, Lebel et al. 2006). Thus, a key factor for the continued existence of humans is their adaptive capability in light of environmental change (Winterhalder 1980, Smit and Wandel 2006). Here, learning is a key means of adaptation and resilience (Kelly and Adger 2000, McGray et al. 2007, Tschakert and Dietrich 2010, Amaru and Chhetri 2013). A rich literature explores social-ecological systems (e.g., Bodin and Tengö 2012, McGinnis and Ostrom 2014) and the role of institutions (e.g., Ostrom 2005, 2007) to understand the impacts of and responses to change, including how new institutions come to develop through these adaptation actions.

In this context, community responses to change have been categorized, for example by Thornton and Manasfi (2010) who identify mechanisms of adaptation, which can also be considered as the directions in which communities can adjust, or what they can do. The characteristics that support effective responses have also been categorized, for example by Walker and Salt (2012) who identify strategies for resilience, which can also be considered as the ability of communities to adjust, or why they can do it. The ways in which these mechanisms are influenced by local social, economic, cultural, and environmental contexts are important factors to consider (Geels 2011), in addition to the details of the responses themselves.

Building on these analyses of what communities can do and why they are able do it, we consider here how communities are able to respond to change, the details of which result from the combination of the nature of the change itself with the abilities, resources, and capital that communities have at their disposal. Research on how communities innovate, for example within the area of socio-technological innovation and cultural evolution, generally suggest that people and communities respond to new conditions within an innovation space or niche (Geels 2011, Waring et al. 2015). This literature draws attention to the structural forces exogenous to local communities that shape the innovation space. We focus on the equally important question of how people create new options or paths for themselves and their communities within, and perhaps despite, these structural constraints (e.g., Garud and Karnøe 2001).

To begin to explore this question of how people respond to change, we consider a selection of cases from around the world (Fig. 1) in which indigenous or artisanal communities have responded to change. Each case is familiar to one or more of the authors, all of whom work with small hunting, fishing, and farming communities. The social cohesion and localized resource use patterns of these communities make them suitable examples for an initial analysis. Our assumption is that community responses reflect local perceptions and local knowledge of what is possible and desirable.

Given that most people respond to change in a way that prefers maintaining the status quo (Thornton and Manasfi 2010), innovation toward adaptation or transformation requires flexibility, both the possibility of and willingness to change what one does (e.g., Irvine and Kaplan 2001, Thornton and Manasfi 2010). We suggest thinking of these possibilities as the response space in which one can alter one’s patterns of activity (Tompkins and Adger 2005). We neither claim that future changes will necessarily be met in these communities with effective responses, nor do we imply that a community’s ability to respond effectively somehow negates the environmental injustices of climate change or other drivers of change (e.g., Loring 2013, Oliver-Smith 2013). We expect that a better understanding of how communities are able to respond to change will provide insights into policies and practices that can better support community response in a broad range of environmental and cultural contexts. Our paper is a first step in that direction.


To explore the question of how communities respond to change, we chose 13 examples from the experiences of the authors that provide a set of critical cases for our analysis and synthesis (Patton 2015). Following Yin (2009), we sought “revelatory” cases, ones that illustrate a particular phenomenon, e.g., response to change, allowing us to test and develop our ideas concerning community response through “confirmatory” cases. Assembling and analyzing cases where communities failed to respond would be a different exercise, beyond the intent of our work, though perhaps instructive in its own way. The examples are not intended to be representative, but are geographically, culturally, economically, ecologically, and politically diverse, and are sufficient in number to reduce selection bias from the influence of any individual author. We believe our examples provide an adequate basis for exploring the “how” of community response to change in hunting, farming, and fishing communities in freshwater, coastal, and forest ecosystems from the Arctic to the tropics.

We analyzed each case study based on our own experience and published sources where available, to determine (a) the major change(s) that had occurred, (b) the community’s response(s), (c) the initiator(s) of the response, (d) the result(s) of the response(s), and (e) what was required from the community or others to make the response(s) possible. We considered the context in which communities were able to act, selecting the community capitals framework of Emery and Flora (2006) and its identification of seven distinct types of capital, which we further distinguished into assets and constraints on the ability of each community to act. We compared the type of response with Thornton and Manasfi’s (2010) typology of mechanisms (the what) and with Walker and Salt’s (2012) typology of strategies (the why), to confirm that our examples are indeed diverse in both senses, with at least one example matching each element of both typologies. Finally, we put the case studies in an order that illustrates the explanation-building approach described by Yin (2009), in which each case adds additional insight to our understanding of how communities respond to change. From the analysis of the case studies, we created a synthesis of results by identifying common elements and patterns in the search for a better understanding of how communities are able to respond to change in diverse contexts.


Table 1 provides an overview of each case study, (a) noting the type of ecosystem in which the community is located, (b) outlining the five elements noted in Methods above, and (c) providing the major sources of information for each case study. The order of the case studies follows the presentation of results below. The cases cover a wide range of ecosystems and resources used; include hunting, fishing, and agriculture; describe four drivers (climate change, species introduction, overexploitation, and anthropogenic disturbance); and reveal a range of results and conditions that enable the achievement of those results. The range and variety of experiences allowed us to build and test ideas that are likely to be more robust than if they had come solely from case studies that were too similar to one another.

Table 2 summarizes the capitals, expressed as assets and constraints, of each community as it responded to change. Note that some characteristics can be assets in one form of capital and constraints in another. For example, geographical remoteness tends to reduce political capital, which is a constraint to response, but it can also allow for greater spatial mobility without impinging on other communities’ use areas, which is an asset. Remoteness can also mean less attention from regulators, allowing for greater local flexibility. Not surprisingly, small communities tend to be high in social, cultural, and certain human and natural assets, but also limited by political and economic constraints, including infrastructure. These patterns undoubtedly shape the types of responses that are possible for these communities, but still allow the set of cases to exhibit all of the mechanisms and strategies listed in Table 3.

Table 3 categorizes the responses in each case by mechanisms (per Thornton and Manasfi 2010) and by strategy (per Walker and Salt 2012). The examples cover a diversity of mechanisms and strategies, illustrating the ability of the communities in the case studies to make use of one or more of the options available to them. There is no guarantee, of course, that a community attempting to respond to a change would have any options available, and no community is obliged to use all of the options available. Nonetheless, the use of a variety of mechanisms and strategies suggests that keeping options open is a useful goal, rather than expecting that any single mechanism or strategy will be available and appropriate when needed.

Building on the information in the summary tables, we provide a brief description of each case study and how it adds to our understanding of how communities respond to change (the main references for each case are provided in Table 1). We begin with cases in which broad-scale and local environmental changes have produced new opportunities, which lead to perhaps the simplest responses. Then we look at cases where environmental changes have reduced opportunities (sometimes in combination with human pressures), forcing communities to make a change. The last examples concern increases in competition from other users, again forcing a response as opportunities diminish.

Savoonga, Alaska: a new season for whaling

Although climate change is often cited as a cause or expected cause of loss of resources and access thereto for hunting and fishing communities (e.g., Ford and Smit 2004), in some cases it can also provide new opportunities. With regard to fall whaling at least, Savoonga experienced a beneficial change that it was able to use to advantage, developing a new bowhead whaling (Balaena mysticetus) season to supplement low harvests due to poor weather and ice conditions during spring whaling or with walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) hunting (e.g., Huntington et al. 2013). Flexibility and innovation were critical, exercised through the existing structure of whaling crews, and were unconstrained by regulatory limits such as a fixed whaling season.

Savoonga, Alaska: a new species to harvest

Savoonga has experienced another new opportunity due to climate change (warming of ocean waters). The arrival of the hanasaki or brown spiny king crab (Paralithodes brevipes) in the northern Bering Sea has resulted in a new and enthusiastic crab fishery by the St. Lawrence Island Yupik. Families are able to go crabbing together, allowing young people to join in the production of food for local use. The ecosystem consequences of the arrival of the hanasaki crab are as yet unknown, but the absence of restrictions has allowed the Yupik to take advantage of their arrival. Again, the community was able to make use of a new opportunity.

Piracicaba River, southeastern Brazil: exploiting invasive species by acquiring knowledge

Anthropogenic environmental impacts are well known on local and regional scales. The construction of the Tietê River dam affected existing fishes, but also led to the arrival of two new fish species, the intentionally introduced corvina (Plagioscion squamosissimus) and the naturally invasive armoured catfish cascudo (Liposarcus aff. anisitsi). As was the case for Savoonga and the brown spiny king crab, fishers along the Piracicaba River have dealt with these changes by directing fishing efforts to catch and sell these introduced fishes, drawing on detailed knowledge they have developed since the fishes’ arrival. This suggests that such local ecological knowledge may be rapidly acquired and may contribute to adaptations to change.

Kuskokwim River, Alaska: women’s strategies for sustaining food security

Along the Kuskokwim River, on the other hand, environmental and perhaps human influences led to the failure of the salmon run in 2000, a seasonal cycle that the Yup'ik villages in the watershed have relied on for centuries. Women in the thousands of affected households (Yates 2000) adapted by drawing on social networks and traditional knowledge to resume older methods and develop new ones for extending the use of the salmon that were available and for using other fishes as substitutes. Here, a negative impact from environmental change forced the responses taken by the women of the region.

Näätämö River, Finland: adapting to climate change through collaborative management and salmon habitat restoration

Climate change, combined with local habitat degradation, has greatly reduced the abundance of Atlantic salmon in the Näätämö River. Starting in 2011, the Skolt Sámi initiated the very first collaborative management plan for the river, drawing on the long-preserved Sámi cosmologies and traditional mindset. As with the Kuskokwim, environmental loss has been met with self-organization and a renewed emphasis on traditional knowledge. The first modern land use and occupancy map of Sámi activities has been produced, Sámi knowledge has contributed to the observation of new insect species in the catchment area (Mustonen and Feodoroff 2013), damaged sites have been chosen for restoration, and a sustained harvest of predator fish such as northern pike (Esox lucius) and burbot (Lota lota) has been initiated.

Mustang, Nepal: shifting crop types and locations

Farmers in the lower Mustang region enjoyed good apple production starting in the early 1960s. In recent years, climate change has caused apple production to plummet sharply in lower areas but has also allowed it to expand into higher altitudes. As in the Kuskokwim case, a negative impact from environmental change forced the response, which was made easier by the relatively sparse population (3.8 individuals per square km; GON 2012). The availability of space into which farmers could expand may have facilitated people in moving to higher altitudes while retaining lower areas for cereal cultivation.

Lamra, Jumla, Nepal: shifting cropping systems

Climate change also forced changes in crop production systems in the area of the Lamra village development committee (VDC) of Jumla District. Famous for its rice production at unusually high altitudes (up to 3000 m; Uhlig 1978), a rise in average temperature and low and erratic precipitation in recent years have caused a drastic decline in production. To support the switch from paddy cropping systems to millet-based cropping systems, farmers and their supporting institutions, e.g., a saving and credit group, an irrigation group, have evolved proactively to respond.

Nuiqsut, Alaska: a shorter whaling season

The whalers of Nuiqsut faced both environmental and social change in recent decades, which combined to reduce the time available for fall bowhead whaling. Thanks to the tax and business revenue from nearby oilfields, Nuiqsut is unusual in our case studies for having financial assets that supported the purchase of larger boats with more powerful and reliable engines. As with Savoonga’s fall whaling, the existing structure of whaling crews allowed whaling captains to initiate the response, so that Nuiqsut whalers could continue to obtain the whales they need despite new constraints on the time available for the hunt.

Lower Tocantins River, Amazon Basin, Brazil: shifting target species

Large dams, deforestation, and increased fishing pressure (Ribeiro et al. 1995, Petrere 1996) have had negative impacts on fishes and fisheries along the Tocantins River. In addition to redirecting fishing effort and changing gear types, the region’s fishers have participated in comanagement efforts, building social and political capital to create more effective management methods that in turn have increased fish abundance and improved fishing yields. As in the Kuskokwim, environmental change has led to greater use of social assets.

Jukajoki, Selkie, Finland: communal restoration of watershed following fish death

Discharges of highly acidic pollution (pH 2.77) from the Finnish Power Company (VAPO) peat production site killed all the fish in the river Jukajoki in June 2010 and again in June 2011. As with the Tocantins, these impacts were observed by fishers along the river, who organized to initiate a watershed-wide restoration effort, drawing on oral histories and local knowledge. A lawsuit forced VAPO to end its operations and won protected status for the Linnunsuo wetland unit, which has since become the top-most habitat for wading birds in Finland, and is home to rarities such as the Northern Pintail (Anas acuta) and Terek Sandpiper (Xenus cinereus).

Sepetiba and Ilha Grande Bays, Brazil: organizing to protect fisheries

Pollution combined with competition for space (from tourism) and resources (from industrial fishing) reduced customary small-scale fisheries in Sepetiba Bay, with about 15 fishing communities, and Ilha Grande Bay, with about 34 fishing communities (Begossi 1992, Cynara et al. 2006, Lacerda and Molisane 2006, Begossi and Lopes 2014). Fishers in Sepetiba developed new activities and self-organized to negotiate with polluters and legislators, resulting in continued livelihoods there. The fishers of Ilha Grande Bay, on the other hand, have done little to learn new skills or organize themselves, and the future of fishing there is unclear (Trimble and Johnson 2013).

Amazon Basin, Brazil: networks of artisanal fishers

Direct competition for fish stocks is another form of local anthropogenic impact. Faced with the arrival of large-scale commercial fishers, small-scale fishers in the Amazon Basin used networks that had been built from the 1960s onward to help fishers organize their response, including the creation of fishing agreements (de Castro and McGrath 2003, McGrath et al. 2007). As with other cases of local environmental degradation, self-organization was a key element of the response. Although there is relatively little monitoring of the outcomes of these agreements, interviews with local fishers indicate that fishers in communities that established fishing agreements have higher fishing yields.

Tavua, Fiji: inclusive fisheries management

The district of Tavua also experienced increased competition, including poaching, leading to a long-term decline in reef fish catch within the local fishing ground. A productive portion of the reef measuring 13 km² has been protected by the people of Tavua since 2003, but increased poaching and fishing pressure continued. Here, too, self-organization and innovation lay at the heart of the response. In 2012, the late chief of Tavua, Ratu Jale Kuwe Ratu, convened a workshop that led to two major, innovative changes. First, commercial fishermen could also be trained and authorized as fish wardens. Second, a Tavua Fishermen’s Council was created, from which a representative would be invited to attend the normally closed meetings of the Bose Vanua, the Tavua tribal and clan elders. The Council was further empowered to make decisions and be responsible for issuance of fishing licenses.


In the synthesis, we start with the results of the analysis above and consider similarities and patterns in how communities are able to respond within their response space. In some cases, such as Savoonga and the Piracicaba, the community simply took advantage of new opportunities. In these cases, there were no constraints limiting their ability to make use of new species or new times for hunting. In the rest of the cases, where changes altered or reduced opportunities, most communities responded by some form of self-organization, using or creating fishers’ associations, comanagement arrangements, savings and loan and irrigation groups, and so on. It should not be surprising that changes reducing opportunities (negative impacts) require more effort and reorganization than changes that provide new opportunities, but this finding illustrates the capacity for communities to develop, when necessary, new modes of interaction with one another, with others, and with the natural world.

For some matters, communities are on their own with little to constrain them except the limits of the natural world. Although such a situation provides little support beyond the community’s own intellectual, social, and financial resources, it may also mean that the community can move, innovate, and otherwise change their practices without interference from the outside. Thus, Savoonga was able to start whaling in fall and catching the brown spiny king crab when it appeared in their waters. Nuiqsut was able to adjust their approach to whaling. The people of the Kuskokwim River were able to revitalize old ways and improve sharing of ideas and food. The farmers of Mustang were able to move their orchards uphill. The Brazilian fishers were able to shift target species and methods. The people of Tavua were able to restructure their decision-making system. There was no requirement that any of these changes be made, and no restraint on doing so.

In other matters, communities require some degree of interaction with others outside the community. These cases often, but not always, stemmed from changes caused by local factors, either local anthropogenic environmental impacts or increased competition from other users. The farmers of Lamra benefited from the resources of the saving and credit group and the irrigation group, which provided capital and expertise. The Brazilian fishers benefited from the ability to create comanagement regimes under Brazilian law and from their negotiations with others who were influencing the waters in which they fish. In Jukajoki, interaction outside the community included conflict through the legal system, where local residents were victorious. In Näätämö, the Sámi were able to access funding from the United Nations to support their efforts. Although some response may have been possible in these cases without involving others, the effectiveness of those responses would likely have been lower. Undoubtedly there are also cases where outside influence curtails potential responses. As one example, whalers in Alaska cannot switch to other species because the International Whaling Commission prohibits it (IWC 2015).

This dichotomy, between actions the community can take on its own and those that require interaction with others, suggests that the response space can be divided into two parts. The part of the response space that is within control of the community can be considered the autonomous response space. The part of the response space that requires the involvement of others outside the community can be considered the collaborative response space, though depending on circumstances the involvement of others may be restrictive rather than collaborative. We next take up the implications of this observation.


We have considered the 13 case studies for what they can tell us about response to change, specifically how communities are able to respond to change. Our analysis identified a variety of responses and types of responses, comprising the response space available to a community. Our synthesis distinguished the autonomous from the collaborative response space, characterized by the presence or absence of outside influence and help. (This is in partial contrast to the use of “autonomous response” to refer to private action as opposed to public action, or “planned response,” by Monnereau and Abraham 2013, among others.) Here we consider the implications of this finding, referring to institutions, social-ecological systems, the boundaries of the possible, and the potential difference between short-term response and long-term adaptation.

The role of institutions is important. Ostrom (2007:23) defines institutions as “shared concepts used by humans in repetitive situations.” Ostrom (2010) further asserts that efforts at multiple, if not overlapping, smaller scales, e.g., families, communities, states, etc., promote more beneficial responses to change than do global efforts. These smaller, polycentric efforts are better positioned to experiment and explore novelty in developing more localized and better fitting responses, by incorporating local knowledge, norms, and values. There is value in larger scaled, global efforts, for example, in securing needed investment, but at the local level, participants in these different polycentric systems can observe and learn from each other, through trial and error. The consideration of the case studies is important precisely because they offer an opportunity to learn from experience.

It is worth noting that the case studies describe innovative responses rather than repetitive situations, and thus fall into Ostrom’s (2005) “action arena,” which is shaped by the biophysical and socioeconomic context, including existing institutional arrangements. Thus, the existence of communication networks (Kuskokwim River, Amazon Basin), savings and loan and irrigation groups (Lamra), the Bose Vanua (Tavua), and other institutions provided a basis for innovation in that the communities were able to use these institutions in novel ways. In other cases, communities had to create new organizations, such as the fishers’ associations in Näätämö, Jukajoki, and Sepetiba Bay. If they persist, these new associations will become institutions as they address repetitive situations, as anticipated by Ostrom (2007).

Many of the cases presented in this paper display endogenous response capability, the inherent, self-defined capacity to address problems at hand. This endogenous power is very different from official governance; in fact, most of these cases operate on the peripheries of official power and governance. Sometimes the actions and adaptation measures can be in opposition to or in conflict with top-down decision-making processes, e.g., conflicts in Brazil between large- and small-scale fishers, between tourism and small-scale fishers, between industrial pollution and small-scale fishers. As several of our examples show, local communities can produce and reproduce their own interpretations of scale and temporality (Mustonen 2014a). Even in the collaborative response space, it is essential to remain aware of the specific details of community contexts and the potential imbalances in power between small communities and larger institutions such as governments.

In both the autonomous and collaborative response spaces, networks can help spread ideas and express the need for support. These networks can be developed at different scales, such as kin, villages, communities, and NGOs, among others, are likely to influence the type, strength, and effectiveness of responses. The fishers from Sepetiba Bay built up strong associations, enhancing what they were able to achieve in the collaborative response space. Networks and associations were also important in the Amazon, in the case of the fishing agreements. The freshwater fisheries of Piracicaba and Tocantins rivers directed responses by shifting target species and fish technologies and sharing that information among practitioners. Diversification is another outcome, as seen in the increase in tourism in the Atlantic Forest coast. Ilha Grande Bay is another example of diversifying activities as response (Lopes et al. 2015). The increased use of sharing networks by women along the Kuskokwim River similarly helped communities respond by creating a wider base for providing food and by pooling and revitalizing traditional knowledge.

Social-ecological system (SES) frameworks provide another way of examining the factors that shape community response to change. In this approach, scales in time and space are important considerations (e.g., Cumming et al. 2006, Perry et al. 2011), the examination of which could add further insight into the relationship between autonomous and collaborative response spaces and the factors that determine the size and characteristics of each. Furthermore, the degree to which self-organization was involved in the responses of the case studies suggests that the dynamics of the social system in particular may be especially important, as was found in a detailed examination of the Bering Sea SES (Haynie and Huntington 2016).

There are, of course, external factors beyond the control of the community or its collaborators. Apple trees can only grow so high in the mountains of Mustang. Fish populations can only support a finite level of fishing. These factors create the outer boundaries of the possible. Recognizing these limits is essential, but it is also important to recognize the power of innovation to create previously unseen possibilities, such as targeting an invasive species or taking up mariculture. Acquiring new ecological knowledge to exploit invasive species, as observed in the Piracicaba River or in Savoonga, is one such innovation that can greatly assist in finding new possibilities, though innovation can also lead to overharvest and other problems as well. At the same time, invasive species are a major threat to biodiversity worldwide (Mack et al. 2000) and either biologists or local people may have difficulty reducing the abundance of nonexploited exotic species (Shine and Doody 2011). In this sense, the adaptive response of exploiting exotic or invasive species may address two problems at once: control of invaders and provision of food and income to local communities (e.g., Dierking and Campora 2009).

Furthermore, short-term responses are not always long-term solutions. An important future research area is the exploration of how these short-term responses to change do or do not translate into long-term adaptive strategies. For example, fishers in the Tocantins River use gillnets with relatively small mesh sizes (Hallwass et al. 2013b, Silvano et al. 2017). Although this strategy may be an effective short-term response to a decrease in the abundance of large fish, it also may compromise fish stocks in the long term (e.g., Welcomme et al. 2010).


As our examination of the “how” of community response is a first step, we now enter into a speculative realm about what our findings may mean and where further research is needed, particularly with regard to policies that can affect the size of and access to response spaces. Neither the autonomous nor the collaborative response space, nor the boundary between them, is fixed. Changing conditions may increase or decrease what is possible, i.e., the size and configuration of the overall response space. New regulations may shift a potential response from autonomous to collaborative, whereas devolution of authority can work in the opposite direction. Furthermore, autonomous responses are not necessarily preferable to collaborative ones. Collaboration brings the potential for support as well as conflict, and autonomous responses may not take advantage of new ideas or resources. Hovelsrud and Smit (2010), for example, present examples of a wide variety of current responses to change from around the Arctic, noting an emphasis on traditional knowledge as well as a recognition of the role of regional and national institutions. Nonetheless, a strong community role is likely to be essential to making sure that responses to change reflect local conditions and preferences in addition to innovations and resources that may come from elsewhere.

Awareness of the distinction between autonomous and collaborative responses allows communities and their potential collaborators—governments, companies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), other communities, academia—to better understand their respective roles and how outcomes may be improved by carefully combining local knowledge and customs with outside expertise and resources. The optimal balance will vary from case to case and will be affected by the potential for user conflicts, the allocation of limited resources, and other factors.

The study of local responses points also to various policy implications. Maintaining and enhancing community flexibility to create a large autonomous response space provides an opportunity for communities to respond on their own terms, in ways that correspond to local practices, beliefs, traditions, and priorities. Many such responses are difficult to predict and thus to plan for. The development of fall whaling in Savoonga, for example, was not planned for in the allocation of the whaling quota among Alaska villages, nor in any discussions about seasons. A large autonomous response space creates room for a range of innovation, rather than constraining creativity into only a few areas (Loring et al. 2011).

Similarly, if the collaborative response space is cooperative rather than confrontational, responses will be facilitated rather than inhibited (Harrison and Loring 2014). In Lamra, for example, local farmers are changing their cropping systems, aided by advice from experts about high-yield varieties and appropriate methods for cultivating those varieties. This cooperative approach helps expand the response space by giving the farmers more options. Such options, however, differ between and within communities. Poor communities, for example, have limited knowledge, poor assets, and inadequate external support and therefore may fall behind in using such responses as compared with better-off communities (Gentle and Maraseni 2012). Tracking the effects of those responses can provide important feedback about what works and what does not, guiding further actions and identifying responses that are truly adaptive. A crucial question is what determines true adaptive response. It is widely accepted that innovations should promote optimum use of local resources with minimum external support, and the system should be manageable at community levels (Bell and Morse 2003). This is particularly important for collaborative response space. Cultivation of a different type of apple, for example, can be an alternative to range shift of apple cultivation in Mustang. But this could be too costly if the new variety is vulnerable to disease and pests, requiring further outside assistance if not dependency rather than fostering local capacity.

Some challenges must be addressed to allow the development of policies that properly consider the responses of local communities. Expanding the autonomous response space and making the collaborative response space cooperative both require a transfer of some leadership and power from central governments and large institutions to individuals and local communities (e.g., Amaru and Chhetri 2013). Some governments are reluctant either to consider the knowledge and practices of local peoples or to allow them to participate in decisions related to natural resources management. Similarly, some outside experts remain skeptical about local practices and local knowledge, and undervalue or ignore them (e.g., Huntington 2011). In addition, the responses of one community may conflict not only with government regulations but also with other communities. For example, an expansion in the area of fishing or crop cultivation may collide with resource use areas of other communities, or increased tourism may benefit some individuals or communities while bringing impacts that disturb others. In open-access or common-property systems such as seas and waters (Acheson 2015), clashes between users may undermine the effectiveness of responses, though agreements such as those established among fishermen in the Amazon Basin could be a promising arrangement.


Responses are not simply a product of change nor of an abstract accounting of community capacity or elements of resilience. More focus in research on the actions of local communities in response to climate change expands our understanding of local-level planning, governance, and values for the future. Previous studies illustrate the need for climate change response strategies that better accommodate existing local institutions, local knowledge and experience, and local leadership (e.g., Hovelsrud et al. 2010, Amaru and Chhetri 2013, Kehew et al. 2013). At the same time, although adaptation to climate and other changes is often viewed in terms of local action, it is important to recognize that a number of interacting influences, e.g. institutions, policies, regulations, or knowledge, from international to regional levels may shape which adaptations can take place locally (Keskitalo 2009, Nilsson et al. 2012). There are important intersections between trajectories of capacity, institutions, technologies, culture, and behavior, at multiple levels, that form the context for action in response to climate change and other environmental and societal changes (Burch 2011, Burch et al. 2014).

We show here that communities from a broad range of ecosystems and geographical regions, in land, sea, and freshwaters, have developed dynamic responses to change. The synthesis of all these cases can help identify ways in which communities can deal with complex global problems and changes at local or regional scales. Although these responses have been driven by distinct factors according to local context, distant and unrelated communities have developed similar responses and patterns in how they respond to change. Further research can examine patterns among these and more case studies in greater detail, to advance our understanding of the characteristics that shape responses (e.g., Ostrom 2009). Our results suggest that policy makers and resource managers could achieve better long-term adaptive solutions from an effective combination of autonomous and collaborative responses.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


We are grateful to all our community research partners, who have generously shared their insights and experiences with us in many locations at many times. We thank the U.S. National Science Foundation for its support through the Sustainable Futures North project (Award No. 1262722), for H.P.H., S.G., and P.A.L. The research on which the Brazilian examples are based was funded by FAPESP grants 09/11154-3, the CNPq productivity scholarship to A.B. and R.A.M.S, Eletronorte/ANEEL contract 4500057477. T.M.’s research and contribution to this paper has been made possible by the Turvetuotanto ja vesistövaikutusten hallinta: Relevanteista faktoista tehokkaisiin normeihin/Water Management and Peat Project: From the Relevant Facts to Effective Norms (WAPEAT) (Suomen Akatemian hanke 263465) Project. We thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers who provided detailed and constructive comments that greatly improved an earlier version of this paper.


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Correspondent author:
Henry P. Huntington
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